Sunday, 9 June 2013

3rd Letter To The China Post: On Defamation


A commentary article carried by your newspaper last Thursday, June 6th (by Kim Seong-kon) entitled "Online writing: iCrazy or Internet democracy?" brought the principle of freedom of speech into question through complaints about "vulgarity", "foul language" and "defamation". Although the article was by a Korean writer and drew its' examples from South Korean society, the same basic issues are discussed in Taiwan.

The following day for instance (Friday June 7th), your newspaper carried an editorial complaining that the government's Special Investigation Division ought not to invoke defamation law against members of the TSU who had called them "pigs". In that editorial, however, no particularly secure reason was given for this other than the complaint that laws should not merely be considered ipso facto correct. The point is valid, but insufficient.

The standard defenses of freedom of expression usually include exception only for defamation; that is, the right does not grant the freedom to tell lies about a third party that damage that party's reputation. In this view reputation is considered akin to a property right; after all, reputation is a real marketable asset and any damage to that reputation may result in significant financial losses. However, of what does my reputation consist if not solely the opinions of other people? Do those opinions belong to me? Do I have some unspecified "right" to claim what they shall be, and to thereby benefit from them? The answer is surely - no. My reputation is what other people decide, over which I have no direct control. 
If this reasoning is correct, then it follows that although my reputation pertains to me, it does not belong to me and that if someone were to tell lies about me, I should have no other legitimate response than to assert, and if possible demonstrate, the falsity of those statements. I cannot resort to suing people for having changed other people's opinions about me by issuing false statements. Although abandoning defamation laws would seem to leave the victims of slander and libel undefended, this is not quite true. It merely leaves the victims undefended by the law; other forms of effective social defense may still be possible, and the question becomes one of how to effectively stigmatize slander and libel and to brand those who engage in it, so that they can be easily recognized in the future

As in so many areas of public life, what is needed is both adherence to principle and license of imagination to think up new ways of solving social problems via voluntary cooperation; yet as in so many areas of public life, what actually tends to happen is the immediate and stupid resort to legislation, as if all social problems can be solved simply by hitting people hard enough.

Yours freely,
Michael Fagan
Tainan (Sent Saturday 8th June just after midnight. Unpublished by the China Post.) 

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